When Emily McClure relocated to Virginia from Alabama, she was excited to vote in a state she considered purple.
“I feel like my vote would matter more here,” she said. “I was excited to go to the polls and have my voice heard a little bit.”
McClure found someone to watch her kids and went to her Stafford County polling place, ready to vote in the highly competitive 7th District race between Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and Democrat Abigail Spanberger.
But she was told she wasn’t registered to vote, and casting a provisional ballot wouldn’t make a difference. She wasn’t in the system.
“It just sucks,” McClure said.
McClure and her husband, who was also turned away, thought they registered to vote at the DMV when they got their Virginia driver’s licenses.
But voters don’t actually register to vote at the DMV, they only apply to register, and without accurate and complete information, elections officials can’t complete the registration process once an application reaches them.
Residents’ voter information can end up languishing in registrars’ offices, waiting for additional information from voters. There’s no way to know how many people were turned away at the polls because their paperwork from the DMV wasn’t processed correctly — the state only keeps track of who can cast a vote.
Every state offers voter registration at places like the DMV because of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, or “motor-voter law.” But that law didn’t establish a uniform process for states or provide guidance on how to do it, said Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state who now works as a lawyer and lobbyist on voter registration procedures.
“On one hand, voters all across the country have been able to vote or update their voting registration, which is great,” Grayson said. “The challenge is that the DMV’s job is not to register voters.”
Specific problems depends on the state’s own processes, Grayson said, but registrations getting lost between DMVs and election offices happen often. It happened to him once in Kentucky and he heard about it often as secretary of state.
Most of the systems collecting registration information at the DMV are too reliant on humans, Grayson said.
“And humans make mistakes,” he said.
In Virginia, voter registration applications started at the DMV may not get processed if they don’t have all the required information once it’s at an elections office.
Registrars don’t send incomplete applications back to the DMV, said Brandy Brubaker, a spokesperson for the DMV. They have to work on their own to contact the voter — who doesn’t always provide contact information — and sort out any issues.
An audit by the state’s Joint Legislative and Review Commission in September found that the Department of Elections often received voter information from the DMV that was incomplete or inaccurate. The report evaluated the process in the context of keeping accurate voter rolls, but without accurate information, changes to voters’ registration information can’t be processed.
The state uses an automated system, the report stated, which has saved money and created a more accurate registered voter list.
But not every elections official knows what to do with incomplete information from DMV, the JLARC report found.
“Numerous registrars sought clarification and guidance for months from ELECT about how to process voter registration updates completed electronically at DMV,” the report stated.
JLARC suggested forming a workgroup to study how to make improvements to the system, but legislators would have to formally approve the creation of that workgroup.
Clara Belle Wheeler, a member of the state Board of Elections, said she’s heard many stories about voters having trouble registering or updating their voting information through the DMV.
The most common problem she’s heard is when people move and don’t update their addresses on all their documents. They often end up registered in a locality other than the one they live in.
Wheeler thinks something as simple as giving DMV customers a confirmation number after a transaction would help them keep track of where their voter registration is. But, she added, “you’ve got to be personally responsible.”
McClure isn’t sure what went wrong with her registration process. She thought maybe it was because she lives in a newly built neighborhood, but she knows some of her neighbors were able to vote.
“I’m not very discouraged,” she said. “But you better believe come 2020, I’m going to start checking in February.”
This story includes/started as a tip from ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitors voting problems around the country. If you had trouble voting, or if you saw something you want to tell us about, here’s how.